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Jann Dryer, 1947-2013: every movement was a prayer

By Martha Ullman West
March 4, 2013
Jann Dryer dancing circa 1980; set by Henk Pander

Jann Dryer dancing circa 1980; set by Henk Pander

UPDATE: You can read Jann Dryer’s official obituary notice here.


For nearly twenty-five years I have carried with me a memory of Jann Dryer, who died at age 65 on February 25 after a brief illness. In my memory she is dressed in black velvet and patchwork, out in the middle of nowhere, sitting with two other dancers on railroad ties that are tied to nothing. Her pinky is extended, and she is primly “drinking” tea from a delicate cup. This section of a four-part work called “Zoom” was  titled, in the words of Larry McMurtry, “Scary Wimens.” “Zoom” was performed at Portland State University’s Shattuck Studio Theatre in November, 1989.

Dryer, one of a number of “scary wimens” (Bonnie Merrill, Catherine Evleshin, Pat Wong and Judy Patton) who were integral to the establishment of contemporary dance in the city, was born in Portland on August 19, 1947, and grew up in Southwest Portland. She spent a good deal of her girlhood east of the mountains, and her use of space in her choreography reflected that landscape.  She was a champion equestrian who qualified for Olympic jumping at a time when women need not apply, and that athleticism was very much a part of her choreography, for herself and for the members of the Portland Dance Theatre, which she helped to found in 1970.  This applied  to Cirque, which she established in 1980, after Portland’s first modern dance company disbanded.

Dryer was educated in Catholic schools in Portland, including St. Mary’s Academy, which has a strong program in the arts. She had left the faith of her youth by the time I knew her, and yet she once told me that when she danced, every movement was a prayer. For college, she went first to Bennett College in New York State, then to the Boston Conservatory, where she majored in theater.  All of her work was intensely theatrical and visually oriented: costumes were as integral to her repertoire (she created more than 40 pieces) as choreography, sets, props and sound, and when Dryer stopped dancing, she became a first-rate couturier. Her coats, made from vintage Pendleton blankets, were a marvel of design and color.

Dryer, circa 1979

Dryer, circa 1979

The Portland Dance Theatre grew out of a dance class offered at Portland State in the late 60s, taught by Vaunda Carter, who earlier had worked with improvisational dance pioneer Anna Halprin in San Francisco. Dryer (at the time McCauley), Merrill, Evleshin and Wong met in that class, and according to Merrill, whom I interviewed in 2005 for an Oregonian story on Conduit Studio’s tenth anniversary and its historical roots, the class gave an improv concert workshop in 1970, which Patton saw. A year later the company was established as a non-profit organization, with Dryer as artistic director. The collective’s first piece was called “Much AEIOU About Nothing” and according to Wong, was a send-up of dance teams. Think of what they could have done with “Dancing with the Stars”!

Dryer, Merrill said, was designated artistic director “because she had the most consistent vision.”  That vision was richly textured, rebellious, fearless and humorous. “I do post-progressive Western Da,” Dryer told me in 1989, indicating exactly what she thought of the labels critics and academics find convenient, whether they’re accurate or not. Looking back, I would add the word “feminist” to that statement, and italicize Western. The “scary wimens” soon realized they needed to expand the company and that it would be nice to have some men in it.  Evleshin, who was teaching at PSU, invited Dryer, Wong and fellow PSU instructor Patton to come to a student show, in which a young man from Mt. Angel named Gregg Bielemeier was performing the role of the Wolf in a version of “Peter and the Wolf.”  He wasn’t required to move much; he simply had to “trust four skinny guys to carry me in a box representing a circus cage,” he told me.  That trust got him a spot as an apprentice with the new company.  “I was the only one who was paid,” he said.  “I was a full-time student with a part-time job they wanted me to quit.” While there was much planned improvisation in the Portland Dance Theatre’s shows, they all nevertheless demanded a great deal of rehearsal time, in part because of the integration of props and set pieces, many of which required split second timing.

Dryer proved as talented at writing grants as she was at making dances. “She was the one who pounded on the doors, including the National Endowment for the Arts,” Bielemeier said, although for a period in the mid-seventies, Patton shared that burden as co-artistic director. The company soon had eleven members and began touring the western states, under the imprimatur of the NEA touring program.  Audiences, Bielemeier says, were often mystified but not necessarily negative. There was a lot of variety in their shows, and what he liked very much from the outset was the creation and presentation of “characters.”  His favorite headline, from a Montana review, was: “Portland Dance Theatre Ran Around, Fell Down and Got Up Again.”

In 1978, long before any Portland ballet company produced a show there, the avant-garde troupe performed an evening-length work called “Ear-Heart” at the Civic (now Keller) Auditorium, narrated by novelist Tom Robbins. With music by Gordon Mumma and set by David Cotter, it was based on an imaginary three-way conversation conducted by Vincent Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe and Amelia Earhart. Bielemeier danced in a big plastic bubble, his own idea, which gave me the heebie-jeebies. He loved doing it. This was the third show Portland Dance Theatre produced at the Civic. The fourth, and last, was “Echo,” presented the following year with an interactive set by Henk Pander, who worked for many years with Ric Young at Storefront Theatre. Peter West designed the lights.


Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and cut the NEA budget along with a lot of other things, and even Dryer’s fundraising abilities were frustrated: as the NEA pot shrank, grants got smaller and harder to come by. Patton and Merrill, both of whom had already been teaching at Portland State, moved on. Patton taught, choreographed and performed at PSU with The Company We Keep; she now heads the university’s dance program. Merrill continued to make work on several companies and is the only choreographer to win an Oregon Governor’s Award in the Arts. Dryer founded Cirque, as a vehicle principally for her own choreography. She also commissioned two works by Merrill and one, “Festooning,” by Bielemeier, who headed for San Francisco and then Europe after the earlier company dissolved.

“Cirque was like a family,” said Joan Findlay, who as an inexperienced, very young dancer was taken into the company.  “Jann and Robert adopted me, believed in me as a novice dancer.”  Robert Reichers, who died last summer, was a supremely talented photographer, artist and dancer who became Dryer’s partner in life as well as art.

In a conversation a few days ago, Findlay offered some insights into Dryer’s choreographic methods. “She created on the spot. She never worked out phrases. She drew on the strengths of the dancers.” What Findlay loved about Dryer’s work is exactly what I loved:  the surprises it inevitably contained, the kind of juxtaposition of disparate images you find in a Fellini film or a painting by René Magritte, what Findlay called her “flowing kinesthetic style.”

Cirque was housed in a beautiful space on Southwest 16th Avenue that looked like a SoHo loft. But it didn’t last long. Unable to keep the company going financially, Dryer gave her last concert there in the fall of 1983, when her lease was up for renewal.  That last concert as I remember it, with the help of a review I did for Dance Magazine, contained Dryer’s customary integrity and independence as an artist. The second half’s “Ghost Dances/The River of Lost Animals,” expressed, without polemics, many of her preoccupations as an artist, particularly the role of visual arts in dance. Dryer was pregnant, and she performed an eloquently joyful dance holding company member Linda Turnbull’s serene little son. Dryer’s daughter, tragically, was stillborn.

A new home for Cirque wasn’t found and Dryer and Reichers moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the mid-eighties, living in a completely different cultural atmosphere from Portland, which was to feed Dryer’s work as a choreographer. In September of 1985, PSU presented a full evening of Dryer’s work at Shattuck Studio Theatre. The show was titled “SW-NW.” Findlay and Turnbull performed, and West did the lights for a concert that was centered on ritualistic movement and dream images. “I choreograph emotionally, five hours a day,” Dryer said in an interview for an article in Willamette Week. “The work comes out as it does, but I edit it. I’m not aware of preceding work when I’m choreographing; I’m not comparing the past to what I’m doing now.”

In the late ’80s Dryer and her husband returned to Portland to live, but the Southwest stayed in her work. A solo concert in the summer of 1990 at Dryer’s studio on Southwest Macadam was heavily laced with Southwestern imagery, particularly in a section she called “Retablitos.”  These drew from the lives of people she admired, and her intention, as she wrote in a press release, was “to create composites in which the characters overlap and blend into a mix-up of history, context and cultures.”  The “Retablitos” were stunningly beautiful, especially the one based on the life of Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina who went almost completely blind quite early in her career, but with the help of a wire strung across the footlights, and the placement of lights in the wings, continued to dance for decades. Dryer, no ballerina, nevertheless became Alonso in this solo: arms outstretched, feeling her way, a sightless artist with a vision.

A year later, Dryer produced a series of solos, duets and trios for a concert at Reed College, which she performed with Vinn Marti (known earlier in his career as Vincent Martinez) and Findlay. Dryer continued to make dances. But she was also shifting her focus to clothing and costume design, at which she was equally brilliant.  In the spring of 1995, a retrospective of Dryer’s work concluded that year’s Contemporary Dance Season. It was a reunion of sorts of Portland Dance Theatre and Cirque performers and included Dryer, Reichers, Bielemeier, Findlay, Patton and Linda K. Johnson. There were two new works, “rem.em.ber” and “Mother O’Pearl,” as well as two pieces from the ’80s and “New Orleans Sweet,” a work in progress. Cerinda Survant, reviewing that show for The Oregonian, cited Dryer’s multi-layered, richly imaginative approach to dance theater.


Dryer and Reichers were already flirting with the idea of moving to New Orleans, a city rich in the offbeat color, ritualistic religion and ambivalent joy that appealed to them both, and a year later, when they were flooded out of their home, which was near the Willamette River, they made the move.  There, they opened a shop in the French Quarter called The Grace Note, where they not only offered for sale Dryer’s clothing, but also Reichers’ sculptures, shrines and photographs. Then Katrina struck in 2005, and by 2008 they were back in their home town.

For decades, whether she was living in town or elsewhere, Dryer was a major force in the development of modern and contemporary dance in this town.  She was a brilliant artist, one of a kind, a “scary western wiman,” proud of it and funny about it.  She taught me, and countless others, a way of seeing dance, of looking at the landscape, of knowing the human condition.  It’s been an honor, Jann. Hail and farewell.

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